If you're watching a slasher movie and the guy in the hockey mask doesn't terrify you, or at least present an intimidating figure, then you're facing a different kind of danger. And so is the case with the title character in Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. If Sweeney doesn’t kill it with terror, then disinterest has a real chance to survive…
5th Avenue's present production of Sweeney Todd has a murder on its hands and evidence would indicate the blame lies with casting for vocal merits at the sacrifice of acting chops. Vocally, there is little room for complaint. This cast is stacked with strong singers, filling an essential necessity for such a powerful and challenging score. The same cannot be said for the production's acting capabilities, a problem which starts right at the top with Yusef Seevers's Sweeney. Seevers seems to struggle with capturing Sweeney as a character. He has little to no presence, which is disastrous when you have lyrics stating "…Sweeney would blink and rats would scuttle." Those rats ain't scuttling this time around, instead Seevers drifts aimlessly from scene to scene, lacking any command of the moment, and often being upstaged by his counterparts.
Two of those upstaging counterparts are Anne Allgood (Mrs. Lovett) and Jesus Garcia (Pirelli). Allgood is a revelation, giving an interpretation of the murderous entrepreneur Lovett that would stand out on Broadway. Her character is crystal clear from her first appearance on stage and continues on, supported by a confidence that allows her to completely relax into her role. She is funny without pushing and conveys her inner thoughts naturally with a subtle ease. Allgood lives up to her last name, making it look easy, and her performance alone is worth the price of admission. Garcia offers a brief but memorable performance as Pirelli, providing comic relief while knowing exactly what to do with his short time on the stage.
With these and a few other exceptions, the acting struggle is systemic, which makes all evidence point to the core issue of direction. Jay Woods fails her actors from the lack of a coherent directorial vision down to basic staging. Actors wander about as if anxious to figure out where they belong and seem to have been left rudderless on a sea of character study. The lack of a steady, guiding hand is palpable and the bold choices that are made are somewhat baffling. A striking example of this is the choice to direct an entirely ham-handed sex scene during one of the musical’s most famous and beautiful moments as four separate songs overlap into one surmounting cacophony of overwhelming sound. The intercourse comes in prematurely, causing us to rubberneck our focus on the car crash to our left instead of the stunning sunset straight ahead. This choice does nothing to further the moment and is truly puzzling. The climax is meant for the audience in hearing this euphoric moment (something which, again, the cast does well to deliver) and is better left implied for Anthony and Johanna. This confusion of choice carries over into Danielle Nieve's costume design which is oddly all over the place. Elements of Steampunk clash with Sci-Fi mixed with more realistic period attire, lacking in cohesion and resulting in looks that could be described as a Judge Turpin out of Plan 9 from Outer Space while the Beadle's costume suggests that he may have flown in on a hot air balloon from Kansas. This is all very much at odds with Lex Marcos's very competent and considered scenic design. Intimidating, pointed pikes jut up from below as elegantly sharp arches hover from the proscenium above, both threatening to come together at any moment in a world-ending chomp, successfully creating a source of constant tension for the play to fearfully exist in. That such a poignant set design should be made to co-exist with such a confused look in costumes again speaks to Woods's overall difficulty with vision and direction.
Sweeney Todd is arguably one of the greatest achievements of one of musical theatre's greatest composers, so there is much to be said for taking the opportunity to hear Sondheim's songs sung so soundly. However, many of the profound and galvanizing themes embedded in its words are left largely unexplored in this production. 5th Avenue shows great potential but falls short of being the genuinely worldclass playhouse I sincerely hope they one day become.